Organizations which advocate for human rights in El Salvador continue to differ over the US-run International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA). At the ILEA, law enforcement instructors from the US teach courses to police, judges and prosecutors from El Salvador and the rest of Latin America. The courses taught at the ILEA cover topics such as trafficking in persons, anti-gang activities, drug crimes and crime scene management. I have previously expressed my support of the ILEA concept.
The most recent embodiment of the debate over the ILEA began with an article in the NACLA Report on the Americas by Wes Enzinna, a UC-Berkley graduate student in Latin American Studies and freelance journalist. Enzinna's article contains a variety of attacks against the ILEA including the refusal of the school to release its list of graduates or its training materials, the opposition of Salvadoran human rights groups, the clear human rights abuses of El Salvador's National Police, statements by US officials that law and order is good for US business operating in the country, and the Saca government's use of anti-terrorism laws against demonstrators.
Some of Enzinna's arguments rest on who else opposes the ILEA. He points to opposition in Costa Rica which prevented the academy from being located there. He also points to opposition by the FMLN in El Salvador. Yet Costa Rica now sends its police to the ILEA, and the FMLN's candidate for president, Mauricio Funes, has said in interviews here and here that he does not oppose the operation of the ILEA in El Salvador, recognizing the country's need to improve its ability to combat criminal rings which traffic in drugs and persons.
In addition to these arguments, much of Enzinna's argument consists of an attack on Benjamin Cuellar, the Director of the Human Rights Institute at the University of Central America (IDHUCA for its initials in Spanish). The IDHUCA acts as human rights instructors and monitors at the ILEA. Enzinna essentially argues that Cuellar has sold out, and is being used by the US to give the ILEA a sheen of respectability.
Now there has been a rebuttal to Enzinna's attack on Cuellar in the form of a letter to the editor published in the NACLA Report. The letter is signed by a variety of academics and members of human rights organizations and includes the following:
As the article notes, IDHUCA decided to engage with the ILEA, offering a human rights course to police trainees similar to a one it has offered since the early 1990s. IDHUCA thought it important to offer the human rights training and believed that access to the institution would allow it to examine the curriculum and materials, and the courses offered. IDHUCA saw this as an opportunity to review the content and scope of the courses being given and to press for greater transparency and accountability within the institution. One may agree with this strategy or not; other organizations in the human rights and legal community in El Salvador chose not to participate in the ILEA. But agree or disagree, it is unjust and false to suggest, as the article does, that IDHUCA’s work at the ILEA implies a blanket endorsement of the academy and all its practices, or an indifference to concerns about transparency and accountability.
U.S. support for police assistance and training has been a controversial issue in El Salvador and other countries in Latin America, particularly given the history of U.S. policy in the region. That concern has been exacerbated by U.S. treatment of prisoners in Iraq and concerns about the treatment of prisoners at the U.S. base at Guantánamo. The debate over how best to professionalize the police forces of countries with histories of gross human rights violations and to promote much needed reforms is a valid one. Police training programs ought to be conducted transparently, there should be civilian oversight, and there should be clear assurances that both students and trainers will be civilians, rather than military personnel. As the article notes, there are concerns about all these issues at the ILEA in El Salvador.
However, the article removes the ILEA discussion from an institutional context, instead focusing on Cuéllar as an individual, emphasizing its view of him as a loner in engaging with the academy, calling his beliefs “misguided,” painting him as secretive and unwilling to work with others, and questioning his legitimacy as a human rights defender. This is unfair to Cuéllar.
Enzinna's reply, which calls the letter to the editor a "spurious censure" appears as well on the NACLA website.
I had a chance to speak with Benjamin Cuellar about the controversy when I was in El Salvador recently. Frankly, the idea that this leading figure for advancing the cause of human rights in El Salvador would allow the IDHUCA to be manipulated to cover up a school for training human rights abusers, is preposterous. What was clear to me was that Cuellar is convinced that the professionalism of law enforcement in El Salvador must be improved. This is not the training of the military as ocurred at the School of the Americas during the 1980s; this is the training of college-educated, civilian police officers as well as judges and prosecutors. The problem for El Salvador is crime -- both organized and unorganized -- not the fact that the US is offering training, watched by the IDHUCA, to help combat that crime